Astronomers in Hawaii have discovered a first-of-its-kind space rock that appears to be a cross between an asteroid and a comet. The unusual asteroid belongs to a family of objects that share an orbit with the Gas Giant Jupiter and are known as Trojans. The asteroid was spotted by the University of Hawaiʻi’s Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), a NASA-funded early asteroid warning system.
ATLAS first spotted the unusual asteroid in early June 2019.
The rock was officially designated 2019 LD2 by The Minor Planet Center.
Subsequent observations in July revealed a faint trail of gas or dust behind the asteroid, giving it the appearance of a comet.
As comets race around the Sun, they melt and the frozen chunks of ice and rock leave behind distinct tails of dust and glowing plasma.
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But asteroids are typically far too rocky or metallic to be affected by the Sun in the same way.
LD2 is the first observed asteroid to spew out dust and gas in this fashion.
Astronomers now predict these Trojans develop comet-like traits, such as tails, at later stages of their life.
Astronomer Alan Fitzsimmons from Queen’s University Belfast said: “We have believed for decades that Trojan asteroids should have large amounts of ice beneath their surfaces, but never had any evidence until now.
It’s a real bonus for ATLAS to make these kinds of discoveries
Larry Denneau, ATLAS co-Principal Investigator
“ATLAS has shown that the predictions of their icy nature may well be correct.”
Asteroid LD2 passed behind the Sun in late 2019 and early 2020 and was not visible from Earth until April.
Once the asteroid reappeared, astronomers have confirmed its tail along with more than 40 comets discovered by ATLAS.
The Trojan is locked into orbit by the crushing gravity of Jupiter.
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There are two known swarms of Trojans orbiting Jupiter – one head of the planet and one behind.
Astronomers believe most of these space rocks were captured billions of years ago.
Any surface ice that could have vaporised would have likely done so a long time ago.
The astronomers now speculate LD2 suffered a landslide or was struck by another asteroid, exposing ice buried under its surface.
And though the asteroid discovery is harmless, it shows there many wonders of the solar system left to be uncovered.
ATLAS project co-Principal Investigator Larry Denneau said: “Even though the ATLAS system is designed to search for dangerous asteroids, ATLAS sees other rare phenomena in our solar system and beyond while scanning the sky.
“It’s a real bonus for ATLAS to make these kinds of discoveries.”
ATLAS is funded by the Near-Earth Object Observations Program in NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office.
ATLAS consists of two telescopes about 100 miles apart, which automatically scan the night skies for moving objects.
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